Decoding Malaysia's disaster management: What is exactly Nadma’s role and who is really in charge?

Nadma director-general Datuk Aminuddin Hassim briefs Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob on the country’s flood situation by at the National Disaster Control Centre in Puchong December 18, 2021. — Bernama pic
Nadma director-general Datuk Aminuddin Hassim briefs Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob on the country’s flood situation by at the National Disaster Control Centre in Puchong December 18, 2021. — Bernama pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 29 — The National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma) was criticised early on in the recent massive floods just days before Christmas — which hit several states badly, especially Selangor — for its perceived slowness in leading rescue and relief efforts.

Additionally, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob said the responsibility of managing flood disaster was not that of the federal government alone, as the state governments and relevant authorities at the districts also play an important role.

So, who is really in charge when disaster strikes in Malaysia and who holds the responsibility for the criticised relief response for the recent floods?

Here’s a quick overview of the current system for disaster management in Malaysia:

First of all, what is Nadma?

According to Nadma’s annual report in 2018, it was formed as an agency dedicated to managing disasters, in view of the need for improvements following the December 2014 floods that struck Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang and Johor which claimed 25 lives and caused 541,896 persons to be evacuated and with estimated losses of RM2.9 billion.

The Cabinet had on July 29, 2015 decided to have the crisis and disaster management function taken out from the National Security Council (NSC) under the Prime Minister’s Department, and on August 26, 2015 agreed to form Nadma to take over the responsibilities previously held by the NSC’s disaster management division.

Nadma, which is also under the Prime Minister’s Department, was officially formed on October 1, 2015.

So what is the structure for disaster management in Malaysia?

Rescue workers are seen wading through floodwaters in Hulu Langat December 19, 2021. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Rescue workers are seen wading through floodwaters in Hulu Langat December 19, 2021. — Picture by Hari Anggara

In a move to shift from merely reacting to disasters whenever they occur in Malaysia, the Cabinet had on May 18, 1994 decided to establish a disaster management mechanism under the NSC, following the collapse of a Highland Towers condominium block in Selangor in December 1993 where 48 persons died.

The NSC — which is also under the Prime Minister’s Department — on May 11, 1997 issued a directive on disaster management and relief (commonly referred to as NSC Directive No. 20), with then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad signing off on it.

NSC Directive No. 20 has only been officially updated once, when then prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on March 30, 2012 signed off on a revised version. The 2012 edition cancels and replaces the 1997 edition.

Unfortunately, this 50-page document is not easily accessible from official government websites, with Malay Mail obtaining the 2012 edition from a disaster management expert from a local university and also later spotting the same edition being hosted on Universiti Malaysia Pahang’s website.

The 2012 edition of the NSC Directive No. 20 states that it contains a more comprehensive disaster management mechanism covering before, during and after a disaster, while also stating that this directive could prevent wastage, confusion, conflict or overlap in roles in handling disasters as well as being a guide to help all agencies manage disasters more efficiently and effectively.

Disaster management on three different levels: district, state, federal

A woman is seen wading through floodwaters in Taman Sri Muda, Shah Alam December 22, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
A woman is seen wading through floodwaters in Taman Sri Muda, Shah Alam December 22, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

Under NSC Directive No. 20, disasters are to be managed by disaster management committees at three different levels namely the federal-level central disaster management committee (JPBP), state level (JPBN), and district level (JPBD).

Under the 2012 directive, the central-level committee would be chaired by a minister appointed by the prime minister with at least 37 members from different agencies as well as state secretaries and with the NSC’s disaster management division’s secretary to be the committee secretary.

The state-level committee would be chaired by the state secretary and have 24 members and with the NSC’s state-level’s state security secretary as the committee’s secretary, while the district-level committee would be chaired by a district officer with 22 members and the NSC’s district-level state security secretary as the committee’s secretary.

In other words, the NSC is involved as the secretariat at all three levels of the disaster management committees.

There are also three levels of disaster management, namely Level I when agencies within the same district are able to handle a disaster in an area with little or no outside help, Level II when disaster handling involves more than one district in the same state and requires state resources to be pooled together with limited federal assistance, and Level III when the disaster handling involves more than one state or is of a complex nature requiring federal-level resources coordination or foreign aid.

The committees are to evaluate whether the disaster handling is of Level I, II, III, based on factors such as complexity, magnitude, destruction and damage, capability in terms of funds, manpower and equipment, expertise, aid and response time.

When contacted, Universiti Sains Malaysia lecturer Khairilmizal Samsudin explained that the magnitude and complexity of disasters would be taken into account as in the case of the 2015 earthquake in Ranau, Sabah that required federal-level assistance, and that the decision on whether a disaster requires federal-level disaster management is not limited to the size of the area affected by a disaster.

Similarly in the case of the Selangor floods, Khairilmizal said the federal government would need to play the role of coordinating help by bringing in disaster responding agencies’ personnel from other unaffected states to help Selangor if it has insufficient resources, as the Selangor-based personnel and their families may have also been affected by the floods with their houses also submerged.

According to NSC Directive No. 20, the procedure at the district level or Level I when disaster strikes is for the district police chief (OCPD) and the district fire and rescue officer to act as the disaster operations commander and deputy commander respectively, with the OCPD responsible as the commander to set up an on-scene command post (PKTK).

The OCPD as the disaster operations commander is responsible for coordinating all search and rescue operations on scene and to set up a system to communicate with the disaster operations command centre (PKOB), and to also appoint a forward commander — who will lead all search and rescue operations and to report on the disaster situation back to the disaster operations commander.

The district officer would together with the disaster operations commander assess the situation, with the district officer required to inform the state-level committee JPBN if the disaster cannot be handled by the district level. The district-level disaster management operations are to continue on, even after the state-level and federal-level committees provide help.

A Level II response would be when the state-level committee helps or completely takes over from the district-level, with the state-level committee chairman (typically the state secretary) — as advised by the disaster operations commander — to also inform the federal-level committee if help is needed to handle the disaster. The state police chief and the fire and rescue department’s state director step in as the disaster operations commander and deputy commander if the state takes over from the district-level committee.

Similarly, a Level III response would be when the federal-level committee JPBP deploys its resources to help or take over the disaster management, with the police’s Internal Security and Public Order director and the fire and rescue department’s deputy director-general (operations) to be the commander and deputy commander respectively if the federal level takes over from the state-level committee.

As for the PKOB that is to be set up by the secretariat of the disaster management committee at the district, state or federal level at locations such as the operations centre, the committee is to hold regular meetings at the PKOB location to monitor the progress of the disaster response, and with the PKOB at district level responsible for reporting to the PKOB at the state level and the latter to the PKOB at the federal level.

What is Nadma's role?

A man seeks shelter from floodwaters on the top of his roof in Kampung Labohan Dagang, Banting December 22, 2021. — Picture by Hari Anggara
A man seeks shelter from floodwaters on the top of his roof in Kampung Labohan Dagang, Banting December 22, 2021. — Picture by Hari Anggara

The 2012 version of NSC Directive No. 20 did not mention the role of Nadma at all, since the agency was only formed about three years later in 2015.

On paper, or at least on whatever is available publicly, this would mean that there is no official written government directive on Nadma’s role.

Malay Mail understands that Nadma has continued to make efforts to review the NSC Directive No. 20 from time to time and with the latest being in 2020, and that such updates were not published but directly channelled to the relevant agencies.

It is understood that efforts to carry out a revision of the directive have been carried out since 2016 through discussions, disaster simulations and documents circulated to the relevant agencies, with a workshop among agencies for a joint review last done in January 2019.

Malay Mail was also made to understand that Nadma had carried out a few discussions chaired by its director-general throughout 2019 and 2020, but that such review efforts had to be postponed when Nadma turned its focus to Covid-19. Pandemics are also considered disasters falling under NSC Directive No. 20.

Despite NSC Directive No. 20 not having been publicly updated and with its latest revisions only communicated directly to the relevant agencies, there are crumbs of information available publicly that can shed light on the possible latest arrangements in place.

For example, Nadma’s website now briefly states that the agency acts as a secretariat for both the federal disaster management committee (JPBP) and the federal disaster control centre (PKOB), but does not mention it as having any specific roles for disaster management committees or disaster control centres at the state or district level.

On the Social Welfare Department’s (JKM) website, there is a set of regulations featuring amendments made in 2018 — known as Peraturan Tetap Operasi Pengurusan Bencana Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat (Pindaan 2018) — and acting as a guideline for JKM personnel nationwide during disasters.

JKM’s 2018 regulations list out the leadership and membership of disaster management committees at all three levels, with the JPBP or federal-level disaster management committee to be chaired by the prime minister or deputy prime minister or minister appointed by the prime minister, and with this central committee’s membership to be composed of at least 38 ministries or agencies representatives along with state secretaries, while Nadma’s director-general is stated as the committee’s secretary.

The same JKM 2018 regulations outline the state secretary as chairing the state-level disaster management committee and with the Civil Defence Force (APM) state director as the committee’s secretary, and the district officer as chairing the district-level disaster management committee with the APM’s district officer as this committee’s secretary. (APM is also under the Prime Minister’s Department).

For both the state-level and district-level committees as outlined in the 2018 regulations, Nadma is not listed as a specified member and is also not holding the secretary or secretariat position.

This is in comparison to the 2012 directive where the NSC is listed as the secretary or having a secretariat role for the disaster management committee at central, state or district level.

What Nadma says about its own role for disaster management

If the models outlined in the NSC Directive No. 20 for the disaster management committees at the federal, state and district level continued to be in place with Nadma merely substituting the NSC’s previous roles, it would mean that Nadma is not actually in charge of giving commands.

The minister in charge of Nadma had himself repeatedly confirmed that the agency was only involved as a secretariat at the federal level to coordinate disaster management.

Datuk Abdul Latiff Ahmad, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Special Functions) overseeing Nadma, on November 15 told the Dewan Rakyat that floods or disaster management in Malaysia was a joint responsibility that should be shared by the local authorities, state government and federal government.

He had said Nadma which is based at the Prime Minister’s Department in Putrajaya does not have any officers at the state or district level and does not plan to have such personnel as it involves unnecessary and high cost, noting that matters can be resolved at the state and district level itself under the existing system. He had also said the state-level and district-level disaster management committees are chaired by state secretaries and district officers respectively.

In a December 23 interview with local daily Sinar Harian, Abdul Latiff said that such a system of disaster management shared between the federal, state and local governments was already well-organised although he acknowledged that there were weaknesses to be improved on. He also said Nadma only had 50 personnel at the federal level and can only help as a secretariat as it had no staff at the state and district levels.

Examples of what Nadma has done when disaster strikes

A K9 unit search for missing victims at the Bobby Eco Farm Resort in Bentong December 21, 2021. — Bernama pic
A K9 unit search for missing victims at the Bobby Eco Farm Resort in Bentong December 21, 2021. — Bernama pic

In its 2018 annual report, Nadma sums up its general scope of work as being the coordination of all activities and cooperation before, during and after disasters, including activities for disaster risk mitigation and prevention, disaster preparedness and response, and recovery and redevelopment activities.

Nadma also listed 11 specific responsibilities, such as steering the nation’s disaster management, drafting and supervising disaster management policies, coordinating disaster reduction initiatives, coordinating disaster management practicals, carrying out public awareness programmes, leading humanitarian and disaster aid, deploying the Special Malaysia Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (Smart), carrying out post-disaster action, and managing the National Disaster Relief Trust Fund (KWABBN).

Smart is a team formed on August 1, 1995 after the Highland Towers incident to carry out special search and rescue tasks involving special expertise, skills and equipment especially in disasters, with its members being from the Malaysian Armed Forces, the police and the Fire and Rescue Department.

KWABBN was set up in 2016 under the Financial Procedure Act, with the aims of giving aid to disaster victims, paying for disaster management activities or costs, and providing aid to state governments, departments or agencies without sufficient funds for disasters.

For the year 2018 for example, Nadma had channelled funds from KWABBN to state-level and district-level disaster management committees for their operations, as well as using KWABBN funds to provide over RM25.9 million as financial aid to disaster victims (including 97 per cent or RM25.296 million to 61,374 flood-hit households) and RM3.5 million for food kits for flood victims. It had also given out over RM11.8 million in 2016 and over RM15.9 million in 2017 as aid to disaster victims in general.

Nadma had on December 22 issued a set of frequently-asked-questions on the RM1,000 aid per flood-hit household that was then stated as a one-off aid for this year’s northeast monsoon season, but had on December 25 issued clarifications dated December 24 to state that the prime minister had decided on December 21 that households can apply for the aid for each time they are hit with disaster. The updated December 24 FAQ by Nadma stated that the eligibility for cash aid for households hit by floods repeatedly would be subject to verification by the district-level disaster management committee and approval by the state-level disaster management committee.

By December 24, Nadma had channelled RM26.9 million to 11 states for the first phase of aid for disaster victims, with more funds to be given based on needs. By December 27, Nadma said the total it had channelled to the states for such aid now totalled RM34 million.

Is it time to update the NSC Directive No. 20 to spell out Nadma’s exact role?

Wouldn’t it be easier if NSC Directive No. 20 is updated officially and formally to put into writing Nadma’s roles?

USM’s Khairilmizal goes one step further by saying that Malaysia needs to introduce laws and detailed guidelines for disaster management, instead of merely relying on a policy document like the NSC Directive No. 20 that only provides the general outline.

“In terms of 'tactical' capabilities, lead responding agencies in Malaysia are no doubt one of the best and acknowledged experts internationally, however, our challenges are more towards 'managing the disaster' or specifically in terms of 'strategic' management of disaster.

“Unfortunately, the 'disaster management' in Malaysia lacks in terms of governance and implementation of the MNSC 20 itself. The MNSC 20 is just a 'policy' and not supported by any clear legislation or standards or SOP on 'managing the disaster'.,” the disaster management expert who is attached to USM’s School of Health Sciences’ Environmental and Occupational Health Programme told Malay Mail when contacted.

While NSC Directive No. 20 is a clear and comprehensive policy, he said there needs to be a proper framework with regulations and laws and detailed guidelines to guide the government agencies such as the police and Fire and Rescue Department in implementing the policy.

He noted the structure and flow charts provided as part of the NSC Directive No. 20 only outlined the generic roles and responsibilities, but pointed out the need for details of actions to be taken during disaster operations such as who will be keeping the master record of the number of victims injured and evacuated —- just as the Health Ministry as the lead responding agency is the one maintaining the master record of Covid-19 patients’ numbers.

In the absence of such detailed guidelines to support NSC Directive No. 20, government agencies may resort to developing their own respective processes based on their knowledge and experience — and which may not be based on facts and figures — and which may not be coordinated when it comes to a multi-agency response to disasters, Khairilmizal said.

Nadma’s own five-year strategic plan for the years 2019 to 2023 sets out a target for NSC Directive No. 20 to be revised by 2019, with seven steps targeted to be carried out in 2019 to achieve this revision, including setting up a task force to draft a new law, engagement with stakeholders, submissions to the Attorney-General’s Chambers, presentation at the National Security Council and to Cabinet and Parliament, publishing and circulation, and finally compliance with the policy.

Also included in Nadma’s strategic five-year plan are the goals of drafting a national disaster risk reduction policy, and the drafting of a national disaster management law. These two goals were targeted for full completion by the year 2020.

As of December 28, the floods in Malaysia had claimed 47 lives while four remained missing, with the affected flood victims nationwide numbering 116,273 persons according to Nadma in its capacity as secretariat of the federal-level disaster management committee. Also as of December 28, a total of 55,068 rescue personnel and 5,671 assets from various agencies had been mobilised for the flood response.

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